As successful as the new consoles have been over the last year, being a successful game developer on the new hardware is a lot easier said than done. For many, the gap between the haves and have nots in the AAA space has only widened. Either you go big or you go home... and potentially don't make any profit after years of work. It's a grind that some developers can only take so much of. David Goldfarb, formerly of Starbreeze, DICE, Guerrilla and others, has seen his share of AAA and he's clearly had enough.
I sat down with Goldfarb - who's launching his new studio The Outsiders in partnership with free-to-play pioneer Ben Cousins - at the recent DICE Summit in Las Vegas. The fatigue from years of AAA work was evident - you could almost see it in his face, and hear it in his voice. On the other hand, you could also sense the real relief that this is a man who's finally pursuing his passion.
"It's not like someone was standing over me saying 'You can't make this!' But you're never in a vacuum; for the most part you're at the mercy of whatever is in play at the studio. And then for me, I do the best I can to subvert whatever that thing is with a direction that I'm happy with for good or for bad," he said.
"And that's hard. You go, 'this is what I think it should be' and then you have fights with people. And then maybe it's that and maybe it's not. AAA is risk averse because there's so much money at stake. So everybody kind of wants to check these boxes. That's not necessarily how you find these immense hits."
"I do think there's a spot between the $100-$200 million dollar AAA games and the $1 million indie games that is not being adequately explored"
While Goldfarb wasn't completely creatively stifled, having to fight for what he wanted to make got tiring. He started thinking heavily about the future of his career.
"Here's the thing. I got burned out... I'm not a good fit for any of that [AAA] stuff. And the weird thing about it is because I'm not a good fit I wind up being valuable. But it also means I'm invariably going to come into conflict because I'm not a good fit. So that does get tiring. It's like do I want to do this for the rest of my life and fight these fights? I would say I definitely didn't want to do AAA after Battlefield 4. Then I really did have a pretty good time on Payday. I got to do a lot of cool stuff and the game was a success. Even though it wasn't AAA it was still big or bigger than maybe I felt I wanted to work on," he continued.
Because the AAA studios are being held accountable for their big budget projects, there isn't much room for experimentation. Goldfarb believes it's become a market that only serves the big franchises.
"It's one of those things where if you get past the threshold then you begin to make lots of money. I think the risk/reward for the companies that can spend the marketing money and that have big successful franchises, for them it's still worth laying out that investment. But for people who don't have that kind of capital, you're not really in a practical success loop. AAA is the equivalent of the One Percent right now. It comes with all these caveats. You can't make the crazy stuff really," he lamented.
As negative as Goldfarb may be on the AAA space, he's equally optimistic about the return of the mid-tier, which some felt had become extinct years ago but now has new life thanks in part to the indie scene.
"I do think there's a spot between the $100-$200 million dollar AAA games and the $1 million indie games that is not being adequately explored. To me that's a really rich field to plow and you can do awesome stuff there," he said.
"When you work on these huge titles, they're never yours. It doesn't matter how much you love the franchise. At least for me, that's what matters"
"There's a lot of mid-tier games getting made right now that are succeeding on Steam, in that $3-$8 million range. If you look at the Paradox stuff, those guys are killing it. Those aren't like super expensive games but they're doing very well. There's room in the market to make those types of games that aren't crazy fidelity, 8,000 person teams but they have a style and quality and they're something you can return to over and over because of the gameplay. To me, I'm happy to do that."
Goldfarb was reticent about the game he's working on now, but he confirmed that it's in the mid-tier range similar to Payday 2. He also confirmed with our sister site Eurogamer that it's an RPG project, but more importantly, it's something he actually wants to make for a change.
"After I left Overkill in July, I did some thinking about what I wanted to do next. I want to be able to make the things I want to make. The driving force was to be in a position to make the creative decisions without a filter of any kind," he told me.
"I've made a lot of games that I'm proud of but I never made a game that I was compelled to make because it meant something to me... When you work on these huge titles, they're never yours. It doesn't matter how much you love the franchise. At least for me, that's what matters. It's not just about ownership, but it needs to be expressive of something that matters to me... It doesn't mean you don't want to make money or be profitable - because you have to survive - but it's becoming possible now, I hope anyway, for people to make things that they're passionate about that do well. The spectrum of things succeeding in that vein has broadened."
For Goldfarb, keeping things small is definitely a positive. The budgets and team collaboration becomes far more manageable, and if the quality is there so is the potential for success. The Outsiders is very deliberately a four-person team. "In truth that's the size that we wanted. We want to keep it as small as possible for as long as possible. When it's time to get larger, we'll get slightly larger but never really big at all," he said.
"there's a lot of space in the games industry; we need to broaden that range of stuff that is ok to make games about"
The Outsiders has yet to make any official announcement, but the company is keeping its options open when it comes to platform and business model. That being said, Goldfarb noted that PC is likely a lead SKU and that despite Cousins' free-to-play expertise, the first game probably won't utilize that model.
Goldfarb is aiming to create something most gamers don't expect. "We're just intent on making subversive new experiences, I would say. Finding things that maybe traditionally have been done a certain way and then turning them on their head. That's what I'm interested in doing," he said.
"I always gravitate towards finding tropes that people are used to and then changing them. That's why I liked working on Bad Company so much because I finally got to do something that was fun. Humor is just a great example of something that's been underused in games I think, unless you look at Tim Schafer or someone like that. I just really liked writing for Bad Company and there's a lot of space in the games industry; we need to broaden that range of stuff that is ok to make games about."
With that in mind, Goldfarb remarked that the industry is definitely starting to tackle more serious topics. He cited This War of Mine as an example. Ultimately, though, there's going to have to be a breakout hit on a massive scale to influence the direction of the larger industry forces.
"Honestly what's going to have to happen, is someone is going to have to succeed on a level that they can't ignore. And it's not going to be because they funded it. It's going to happen because it breaks out like Minecraft, whether it's a love simulator or whatever the fucking thing is... because that's always how it is. It's not going to be proactive, it's going to be reactive. They're going to be, 'Oh ok we should do that now.' But fine, just as long as that stuff starts getting made and people start looking at new gameplay verbs," he said.
Goldfarb added that VR could go a long way towards helping developers achieve that goal too. "Oculus is going to be a big deal; VR is going to change things a lot. Just imagine if you're there looking at pictures that mean something and you're trying to piece together a narrative from some dead relative's room or something. You're going to have a completely different engagement with that than if you're in some environment with a gun in your hand."